By Denise Williams | News & Views
A year ago, Carolyn C. was going a mile a minute. Working in a fast-paced job. Caring for a sister with cancer. Helping to look after her mother, who has dementia. Then she got COVID-19, and her world stopped.
The 59-year-old widow likely was exposed while dishing out the TLC for her daughter who, after two negative test results, was presumed to have a common cold or the flu. “I let my guard down,” she regrets. By the time the third test came back positive, it was too late to take precautions – Carolyn was already sick. Her daughter started making progress after about a week, but her own symptoms persisted. The gravity of the situation became undeniable when a friend stopped in to check on her. The visitor, a nurse, had brought along her handy oximeter and was floored by the reading she got from Carolyn: 42%!
“She said I wouldn’t have lasted another day,” Carolyn remarks, still unnerved by the implication.
She remembers the exact date – April 28, 2021; she was admitted to the intensive care unit the same day. After about a week, doctors were advising Carolyn’s daughter to get her mother’s affairs in order. But Carolyn was healthy overall – with strong lungs and none of the comorbidities that work against some COVID patients – and after about three weeks, she finally came out of the ICU. It wasn’t pretty. She had multiple pulmonary embolisms in her lungs, muscle atrophy after losing about 25 pounds, significant hair loss due to steroid treatments and more than a little brain fog. Still, after five weeks in the hospital, Carolyn went home on June 1, albeit with an oxygen tank in tow.
The battle to bounce back from COVID was far from over. Carolyn did a month of at-home physical therapy, learning how to walk again and working to rebuild her strength. She also spent July trying to line up her pulmonary rehabilitation, but the timing was tricky. A lot of PR programs still hadn’t reopened from COVID lockdowns, and many medical professionals across the board had left the field. When Carolyn finally got into PR at University of California Davis Health, spring had turned to fall.
From July to October, she had continued some of the PT activities she learned in June and also added some new ones with the help of her daughter and son-in-law. She thinks it helped her to be more physically prepared for rehab, but she doesn’t play down the value of what she learned in the clinical setting.
Learning to Breathe Again, Live Again
Learning how to breathe, for example, was instrumental for the goals Carolyn set for herself. A doctor had warned her early on that if she still relied on oxygen after a year, then she’d probably be using it for the rest of her life. “I want to be independent of oxygen, and I can be – to some extent – because they taught me how to breathe,” Carolyn says, mentioning specific techniques such as pursed lip breathing. She also learned that coughing is actually a signal that she needs some oxygen, and that understanding helps her to monitor herself. Carolyn also really appreciates how PR taught her to think ahead and plan for her activities – and how much energy they require – so that she can “work with my body” and pace herself accordingly.
Carolyn graduated from PR in early March 2022 with flying colors. She aced the walk test, going 82 meters further than in October and finishing the entire six minutes without using oxygen. Meanwhile, she’s already applying the lessons she learned in rehab. She continues to do many of the exercises, like planking on a chair, at home. The breathing techniques are put to use on daily walks and during the fun events that are starting to creep back onto her calendar as she slowly but surely reclaims her life.
Last month, the travel enthusiast flew to Costa Rica for a much-needed vacation. She was pleasantly surprised that she could walk all around the tourist destination without oxygen – although she had it with her, just in case. Then, to celebrate her graduation from PR this month, Carolyn’s daughter took her to dinner and a concert, where she even danced! Not with reckless abandon – she took breaks and practiced her breathing as needed – but she danced. Again, oxygen was on stand-by but was not needed.
Now, as she approaches the one-year milestone of when she was admitted to the ICU, Carolyn is cautiously optimistic that she’ll be liberated from the need for supplemental oxygen at some point. “I’m able to be off it pretty much all day long as long as I’m able to sit and I breathe, which PR really taught me to do,” she says happily. The brain fog has lingered, giving her a good reason to enter retirement like she’s wanted to do for years, but she’s doing well otherwise. She’s put back on some of the weight she lost, so she’s looking healthier as well as feeling progressively better.
The Bible student credits her faith and her “village” – the countless relatives, friends, roommate, congregation members and others who supported her in one way or another – for where she is today. She also is so grateful for the PR team – for the way they sanitized the rehab space during the public health emergency, for the knowledge they imparted, for their patience and for their constant encouragement. “They have such loving concern for people, and I think that’s really key to helping [patients] improve,” she says.
“The education was really good,” she adds. “Along with the monitoring, I learned what I need to do to try to get my independence back.” She’s working every day towards that end and, for anyone facing a similar journey, she has her own words of encouragement. “This is a slow, slow recovery,” Carolyn concedes … but not a hopeless one!